David and Achilles: Reflections on Femininity

This is the third in an ongoing weekly series of essays (+ roundup) comparing and contrasting two great heroic/epic stories which served similar functions for two dissimilar societies in a similar era. Those two stories are the Story of David from 1st and 2nd Samuel and the Iliad by Homer. This week’s topic, to get this project started, is to discuss, contrast, and compare the openings of the two stories. The first week’s essays were on the openings. My essay was here. The roundup is here. The second weeks essay is here (there were no contributed essays, alas).

Next week’s essay will discuss friendship. Specifically, the friendships between David and Jonathon contrasted with that of Achilles and Patroclus (for “extra credit” throw in discussion of Gilgamesh and Enkidu). As per the usual the idea is to contrast, compare, and discuss the similarities and differences found in these two stories. Then venture a few thoughts on what this might say to us in our modern times. Please, if you have anything to offer, e-mail me by Sunday at 8pm EST, and I’ll include it in a roundup of all the posts entered. I will post my essay Thursday, I hope. 😉

Femininity, in a story of very masculine heroes, like David and Achilles? Well, to be honest, women do not play a major role in either story. To focus our thoughts, I thought it might be helpful to investigate three relationships, two from the David story and one from the Iliad. These relationships are: David with Saul’s daughter Michal, David and Abigail, and Hector and Andromache. What in these stories can we glean the authors might see as women’s virtues? How are they similar? How do they differ? What light might they shed today?

In the first story of Michal and David, Michal we are told, loves David. And our translater Alter, by way of footnote, notes that Michal is the third person in Chapter 18 to profess love for David and more significantly she is the only woman in the entire Old Testament for whom it is explicitly reported to love a man. Michal, who is the youngest daughter of King Saul, immediately proves her loyalty and love for David. Saul intends to kill David, and Michal learns of this. She assists him in eluding an assasination attempt … to her detriment. For David escapes (without her) and for her pains, she pays the penalty. Her father King Saul is not pleased, and he gives her as wife to another man. This man, we find does come to love Michal. For we find, years later when David is starting to win against Saul, David requests Michal be returned to him. Her new husband the narrator reports: (note: Abner is one of David’s war leaders):

But her husband went with her, weeping after her all the way to Bahurim. Then Abner said to him, “Go, return.” And he returned.

Indeed one might guess that Michal herself also had a change of heart and perhaps loved her interim husband, for when she reappears in the story during David’s triumphant return into Jerusalem, she is not so loving.

As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart.

and as a result

And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.

Abigail (1 Samuel 25) was the wife of a rich, old, “harsh and badly behaved man” named Nabal. David had been fighting a war of resistance against Saul for some time. During that time, he “protected” the lands of Nabal for a time. He then requested some (unspecified) recompense to help in his cause. It is not clear if this request was extortion or not, but Nabal turned away David’s men bearing the request with short contemptuous words. David roused his fighters in anger and went with 400 men to “correct” Nabal’s opinion of him. He was met instead by a contrite Abigail bearing gifts very much in excess of what he probably had thought to get. She also had little (or nothing) good to say in defense of her husband. Nabal, when told the news of what his wife had done, is stricken by a stroke and dies soon after. David promptly sends to Abigail a request to take her as wife. She shortly was in fact David’s wife.

Achilles has retired from battle, but the Achaeans are not without heroes. Diomedes and others press the Trojans sorely. Hector returns to the city to pray for relief. Once there, Homer treats us to a glimpses of the women of Troy. Andromache is Hector’s wife. She makes an impassioned plea for Hector to abandon the battle for the sake of her and her son. Achilles has killed her father and 7 brothers. She has left her parents behind and here (Troy) Hector is

You, Hector — you are my father now, my noble mother,
a brother too, and you are my husband, young and warm and strong!
Pity me please! Take you stand on the rampart here,
before you orphan your son and make your wife a widow.

Hector is not insenstive to her pleas, but he would die of shame to face the men of Troy and the Trojan women trailing in their long robes if I would srhink from battle now, a coward. In fact he knows that Troy is doomed and that his wife will live a slave in a far away land. But, he would prefer those things happen after his death

No, no,
let the earth come piling over my dead body
before I hear your cries, I hear you dragged away

He tells her every man’s fate, brave or coward is Death. So she should go home and tend to her tasks, of distaff and loom, and keep the women working hard, while the fighting men (himself most of all) will see to their duty.

While the “conventional wisdom” holds that the lot of women in early Middle Eastern cultures was that of property we find reading these texts that is not always born out by the oral traditions. Likewise in the Greek culture, women’s lot was different than men’s, they had different roles, that of rearing children and tending to distaff and loom, for example. Earlier passages show that women were integral in the religious life, of prayer and sacrifice for Hector sends his mother in his stead to entreat with Zeus to aid the Trojans in their plight.

In the story of Michal (1st part) and Andromache, we see women who love their husbands. Michal, seeing her husband threatened by death, aids him in finding a way clear. Andromache entreats Hector to set aside his heroes destiny as leader and the greatest Trojan warrior. To fight, mindful of how much she and their son need him alive. Both women pay a price for their love, Michal to lose David and perhaps to fall in love with another, Andromache loses her husband to Achilles’ unstoppable fury after he slays Patroclus, Achilles friend..

In these stories women take charge of their fate more in the David story than in Homer’s epic. However, this is more a result of the “sample” size than the culture. For in the Odyssey, Penelope actively fights off suiters using various clever schemes on behalf of her marriage. Penelope actively defends her marriage. However, in both of these stories there is a key difference. In the Middle Eastern culture, we are taught and it seems supported by this text, that women found their worth in their sons. Few of them, like Michal, choose their husband for love. However Helen, Andromache, and Penelope cleave to their men for more reasons than just looking to the sons their husbands can provide and nurture. Abigail very likely chooses David as an upgrade from the reprehensible Nabal. He will give her better sons, he was also certainly better in many other ways. But we have no indication that eros was a part of her decision. It seems likely that more practical considerations were foremost.

Love and a parent’s love for his children indeed shape the marriage of David and Michal. Michal loved David. Saul had offered his eldest daughter Merab to David. But in the succinct terse way of the the David narrator, we are told that Michal loved David. And Michal, not Merab, married David. It is left to us to figure the possible interactions and motives for the change between Michal, Merab, Saul, and David.

Lessons for the Modern Reader
Today’s culture, by and large, stresses the romantic as the main and most important reasons for marriage. Love is important, especially between husband and wife. But … in these tales from an age when eros and romantic love were not the foremost (or even numbered amongst) the reasons for marriage we might consider whether our teaching to our youngsters of the primacy of romantic love is wise. Practical considerations much like those entertained by Abigail might be wisely counseled to those intending nuptials.

Women are taught not to depend on their husbands and very likely would find Hector’s sending of Andromache to the distaff and loom as a disrespectful impulse at best. We teach that there is nothing a woman can not do. There are certainly things, from a biological standpoint, that a man cannot do. It might be better if we teach our young women that indeed nothing a woman cannot do or aspire to, but that there are things a women should do and aspire to based on her sex. That in absence of gift to excell at and the inner drive to do other than those things … she should set those other things aside. Those “other things” that women once did, building a hearth and home or raising children, are not easy things that require little talent.

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  1. Mark says:

    Those are really good comments, especially about Hector and Andromache.

    I shied a little away from writing about Hannah, because I wrote a fair amount in my first essay. And it seemed to me, that Thetis was a little out of bounds, because she is goddess and wasn’t quite prepared to figure out how that fits into the picture.

    Also on another note, Tim Challies (Challies.com) pointed out a few weeks back that an upcoming book 7 exceptional women (of the Bible) as a sequel to 7 ordinary men. Hannah is one of the 7 featured in that book.

    David and Michal’s love for each other (if in fact David ever loved Michal) didn’t survive their separation. They didn’t get the time to have a child. As for Michal, we don’t know but her interim husband certainly loved her, and she may have reciprocated for she certainly didn’t act like she loved him after he returned (and likewise for David).

    I think the attitudes toward the divine will have to be the subject of a future week’s essay.

    What do you think of Abigail?